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Forage at Your Own Risk
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/marktee/4789953343/">Ecstatic Mark</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">pho

. . . New Yorkers are increasingly fanning out across the city’s parks to hunt and gather edible wild plants, like mushrooms, American ginger and elderberries. . .

“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy…

 The New York Times


At twilight one August evening in Central Park, the Garfinkels were giddy with excitement.  They were flush with the how-tos of foraging since attending the Park to Table Tour, Meals at your Fingertips.  Having learned how to search for edible plants in the wild, they crawled through grasses sniffing for mint leaves, plucking elderberries and gathering ginger to fill their baskets.  Inez and Stan Garfinkel weren’t really naturalists, but everyone was doing it.  Shopping the farmers market was out, foraging was in.  With their two kids, Skylar and Joshi, they spread out in search of dinner.  But things quickly took a turn for the worse.  The Garfinkels found themselves tied to a bunch of English Elms.  Their ankles and wrists bound to the trunks with Boston ivy vines.   

Bone Crusher, the ringleader of the chipmunk gang, stood in the middle, the rest of his posse in a “V” formation behind him.  They wore pumpkin leaf bandanas and leather jackets with their logo emblazoned on the back– The ChipPunks.  Two ChipPunks flaunted acorn-spiked cuffs.  Another had his tail pierced multiple times with soda can pull-tabs which scraped the pavement as he walked.

They were known to cover this part of the park, north of Strawberry Fields, south of the Swedish Cottage and west of The Boathouse.  Anyone stupid enough to forage here dealt with The ChipPunks. 

Bone Crusher glared at Inez, clapping with wide, outspread arms, hands making loud slow contact. “Must be proud of yourself, missus, getting the whole family to eat their fruits and veggies.  Congratu-effin-lations.” 

“Garbage mouth,” Skylar whispered to her brother tied to the next Elm.

“What’s that, blondie?” Bone Crusher spun around to the girl, “You the back-sasser in the family?  Or is it the berry-buzz talking?”  Skylar gulped the rest of the blackberries still in her mouth.  She felt juice trickle down her chin and wished she could wipe it away with her sleeve.

Bone Crusher snapped his finger, “Get a gag on her−”

The ChipPunk with the tail piercings jumped forward and whipped a thick braid of ornamental grasses out of his pocket and tied it over her mouth, securing it around the tree.  Skylar threw her head back and forth in resistance.

“Stan!” Inez cried, “Do something!”

Stan struggled to get free from the ivy. 

“Not so fast, Houdini,” Bone Crusher extended his hand to a ChipPunk who passed him a large tree root tendril, the tip of which had been whittled to a fine sharp point.  Bone Crusher pounded the tendril against his palm like a street thug with a Louisville Slugger.  In an instant he appeared behind Stan, having slipped the tendril under his chin, holding it tight across Stan’s throat, while another chipmunk snatched a bunch of freshly picked dandelions from Stan’s fanny pack and threw them to the ground in disgust.

“No sudden moves, Flower Boy,” Bone Crusher advised. 

Not a moment later he was face to face with Inez, uncomfortably close.  She shut her eyes and jerked her head sideways to avoid his nutty breath on her face.  “One of your vegan friends tried to slip outta the park this morning with a Kwanzan Cherry Tree.  An entire tree!  Are you kidding me?!?  Well, she wasn’t so lucky.  She got the ChipPunk assortment of exotic mushrooms as a parting gift.  And we made her eat them.”  Bone Crusher moved in closer to Inez.  “While we watched.” 

“Hey!  You leave her alone, punk!” Stan shouted.   

Bone Crusher ignored him.  “It’s time you vegans pay for what you’re doing!  Johnny here’s lived under that Kwanzan all his life, so has three generations of his folks.  His hole doubled in value under that tree.  Do you know what that means in this real estate market?  Do you?!?  His family could’ve been set for life!”

 “Actually,” Johnny interjected sheepishly, “it tripled in April, during the bloom season.”

“Tripled!?!” Bone Crusher shoved him in disbelief.  

Johnny shrugged bashfully.  “It’s worth nothing now since that crazy vegan took the Kwanzan,” Johnny could barely lift his furry chin, “I gotta let it go−” he choked up. 

“We’re gonna make it right, Johnny!” the chipmunk with tats across his forehead leapt out of formation and spit out a bunch of rocks he stored in his cheeks. 

“Whoa, keep your cool, Frankie, it’s ok.  Of course we’re gonna make it right,” Bone Crusher patted Frankie’s back.  “The Park Rangers are a bunch of namby-pambies.  We can’t trust them to take care of business.”  He turned to the Garfinkels.  “You folks gotta deal with us now.”

“We’re not vegans!” Inez insisted. “…We’re hipsters!” 

Really?  Hipsters?”  The ChipPunks laughed so hard, three of them fell to the ground.  One wet himself.  “Well then you must know about Fairway’s organic produce.   And how ‘bout their gluten-free pancakes.”  Bone Crusher circled the Garfinkels.  “What about Whole Foods’ online shopping and delivery?  Real hipsters buy online.”  Stan and Inez shot each other incredulous eyes.  Bone Crusher stopped in front of Stan and dug the pointy end of the tree root into the hollow of his throat.  “What if I came to your house, Pops, and helped myself to your fridge and made myself a sandwich?  How’d you feel about that?  How ‘bout we gnaw on your kitchen chairs– you okay with that?”  Stan writhed to avoid the sharp point of the tendril.

Bone Crusher took a long look at the Garfinkels.  The disgust in his tiny eyes gave way to pity.  He exhaled deeply in resignation.  “Jeez.  You guys are pathetic.”  He threw the tree root to the ground and shook his head slowly.  The ChipPunks conferenced to the side of the Elms.  Moments later Bone Crusher emerged to address the Garfinkels.

“Listen.  You seem like nice people who’ve just gone astray.  A little under-nourished perhaps, but nice enough.  Have you heard of protein?”  He frowned in disapproval.  “A stop at Mickie D’s ain’t gonna hurt nobody.  This one here could use a little meat on his bones,” Bone Crusher poked gently at Joshi’s slender stomach with a stick. 

Joshi hung his head, “I-I love cheeseburgers−” he whimpered.

“Of course you do, buddy.”  Bone Crusher turned to Stan and Inez.  “I’m gonna let you guys off easy.  You don’t belong here.  You know it and I know it.  Go buy your kids a Happy Meal for Pete’s sake.  Get yourself a babysitter and try that Argentinian Steak place up on Amsterdam.  They do a nice arrachera.” 

Bone Crusher motioned to the ChipPunks to untie the Garfinkels from the Elms.  The Garfinkels hugged each other with relief.  They knew how lucky they were−they would soon be out of there.  Stan said nervously, “We don’t even really like salad!”  In fact, Inez thought, maybe Joshi’s life-long aversion to green foods was an indicator of something more serious.  This foraging thing was silly from the get-go. 

The Garfinkels thanked the ChipPunks for showing them the way.  How funny life can be.  They all shook hands and exchanged email addresses, promising to stay in touch.  Stan vowed they’d be back in the fall with a new Kwanzan to plant next to Johnny’s hole.  It was the least they could do.  That brought a tear to Johnny’s eye.  Frankie, so overcome with emotion, couldn’t help but hug Stan.   As a final gesture of friendship Bone Crusher tossed the tree root tendril to Joshi and said, “Don’t do anything with it that I wouldn’t do.”  They all laughed heartily and parted ways. 

In late October the Garfinkels returned with a Kwanzan Cherry Tree and planted it next to Johnny’s chipmunk hole as promised.  The ChipPunks later carved “The Garfinkels” into the bark.  They took a picture of the gang standing around the tree and sent it to the Garfinkels as a holiday e-card, mailing it in the nick of time− just days before retiring to their respective holes for the winter.